Video games, perhaps more than any other media, are affected by large delays in very profound ways. An artist pushes their album back, maybe they had some problems with the master tapes or weren’t happy with the end result. A movie gets held back from theaters for a few years to secure better distribution or to wait and see if one of the actors becomes a bigger star in the meantime. In both of these cases, the final product remains largely unchanged despite the delays. Games, though, feel the ravages of time more strongly due to rapidly changing marketplace trends and the unstoppable march of technological progress; look at the critical ravaging Duke Nukem Forever received.
Where is this going, you may ask? Calm down, I’m getting there. I was recently tasked with previewing Interstellar Marines, a shooter so early in its development it only features a handful of multiplayer maps. I enjoyed my time there (more to come), and after sinking a few hours into the game I decided to look into some background. And that’s when I found out that this game was announced in 2005. That’s the year I graduated high school. Various factors have prevented its release (having been originally targeted for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Windows) until just now, and even an unsuccessful Kickstarter from two years back can’t keep these marines down. Steam Early Access has allowed a multiplayer-only build of what sounds like an extremely ambitious game (four player drop in/out co-op? 27 guns? Deus Ex-style RPG elements?) to be unleashed on the masses, and every game purchased and every round played will allow the developers to further hone and refine the title in to the grand vision they’ve had for the last 9 years. But is it worth fighting for after all this time?
Interstellar Marines boasts a feature list that would’ve seemed par for the course in 2005 and now looks kind of quaint and charming – the multiplayer’s biggest influence is cited by development house Zero Point Software as Rainbow Six 3, the single-player mode (when it happens) will strive to combine System Shock and Half-Life, and there’s 4-player co-op through the entire campaign. I would have been…oh, 18 years old if this game had come out when originally scheduled, and I surely would have loved every second of it. But even with the withering influences of age and bitterness, I have to say the time I spent in the multiplayer mode gives me faith that they can pull it off.
The game progresses much like a lot of shooters did pre-Call of Duty 4 and I mean that in the best way. There is a progression system of sorts, but it’s not as rigid and fundamental to the gameplay as…really, any shooter these days (there’s that bitterness). Instead, you’re given one of two guns as of now – remember, the developer promised us 27 eventually – and told to kill the other time first, or at least capture all of the designated points around the map.
Even in this early state I came away impressed by the effort and optimistic for the future. The first thing you’ll notice is the sense of weight your character has: your gun sway is perfectly timed with your movements, your momentum is slowed when going up stairs, and upon hitting shift to run faster you’ll realize you were already running and your movement slows to a crawl. Heightening the effect further is your character’s fragility, as you’ll only survive a handful of bullets tops, and health regeneration both takes a lot longer than usual and is only indicated by muffled audio, without any visual cues to tell you when to jump back into the fray. The best Interstellar Marines players will generally prove to be the most cautious ones, and this semblance of something resembling reality helps to set it apart from even a more modern game with a heavy military focus, even if it’s still not as hardcore as Arma or Red Orchestra.
This realistic bent helps give the whole game a sense of tension, which is really missing in a lot of multiplayer shooters both then and now. Death could come from anywhere, as friendly fire is always on, it’s not always clear if you’re looking at an opponent until you’re right on top of them, and (this is my favorite part) the environment will shift throughout a match. Sometimes the lights go out, sometimes a level cycles from day to night and relies on artificial light sources (which can all be shot out), sometimes it starts raining or someone triggers the fire sprinklers, hampering visibility. The maps don’t stand out too much apart from one set in a swamp, but the little dynamic changes like this (and the weirdly sarcastic announcer lady, sounding a bit like the voice of Gordon Freeman’s HEV suit) help give the game a lot of atmosphere and tension that multiplayer modes generally lack.
Alright, so I guess the problem overall is this: yes, Interstellar Marines‘ multiplayer mode is off to a damn fine start and will likely just get better as development progresses unless they suddenly make a series of irreversibly stupid choices with the design. The single-player? Well…alright, maybe. They’re running the risk of biting off more than they can chew, but let’s think about this: what game DOESN’T run that risk before it comes out? In an abstract kind of way, I think the fact they’ve been working to get this game in some kind of completed state for going on a decade, even after a failed Kickstarter venture, indicates they have faith enough in the concept to see it through to the end, and they don’t have any pesky publishers breathing down their necks. And in a more tangible sort of way, I had enough fun with the multiplayer mode that I want to stick around and see how this turns out – and I imagine anyone that plays it will, too.
Besides, at one point the sarcastic announcer lady mentions some escaped test subjects somewhere in the facility you’re training in, and advises everyone to avoid those floors until further notice. I have to know what that’s all about.